OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jennifer Ling Datchuk

Powder Puff Parents

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your work is engaged not only with the Domestic, but specifically with the Feminine (as evidenced in the presence of embroidery hoops, powder puffs and floral decals), but this is the Feminine of a different era. Your objects remind me of things I saw in my grandmother's house growing up, but never in my own house. Are these visual references personal or intended to evoke a sense of cultural nostalgia?

Jennifer Ling Datchuk:
Nostalgia plays a huge role in my conceptual choices of objects to render in porcelain clay. I explore the emotive power of domestic objects that have the potential to fix, organize, and soothe our lives. These objects also have a sense of time and ritual attached to them.  For example, powder puffs were used to apply powdered make up, and you would sit in front of a mirror, dip the puff, tap off the excess, apply to face, and repeat till you reach your desired coverage.  It is a very gentle and slow process and I’d like to think that these moments provide some time for contemplation. I am also romanticizing an era in which consideration was instilled in every day actions, an era very different from our current fast paced, technologically driven, disposable culture.

First Frost, detail

And the decals you decorate the surfaces of your porcelain pieces: are these found imagery from an earlier era?

The surface of my porcelain pieces represents memories of a shared history through the layering of hand drawn, found, and personal imagery. The ceramic decals I purchase in bulk lots from eBay auctions are vintage floral patterns ranging from roses to daisies. When layering decals, I pay careful attention to the color and shape of the flowers. I cut apart decals and arrange them to give the appearance of spreading growth. The surface appears to be lush and decorative but reveals itself to be heavily layered and bruised upon closer inspection. In the process of layering and multiple firings, the life of the work changes, creating a rich history, exposing qualities that are hidden and revealed through the layers, capturing the outside reaction to inside anguish.

The word that most comes to mind when looking at your work is delicacy. I see it in your choice of porcelain, fabric, and wax paper as materials, as well as the line quality in the surface embellishments. How does the concept of delicacy relate to your interest in "revealing the beauty and dysfunction of domestic settings?"

Domestic objects like teacups, handkerchiefs, and wax paper can be emotionally charged, since they have a familiar place in our homes. By distorting the objects through the manipulation of form, scale, and presentation, I am able to express potential failure in these objects and create a delicate narrative of situations. The subtle distances between forms, flowing edges, and layered surfaces allow me to heighten the elements of conflict within these relationships.What initially appears to be dainty, delicate, and fragile slowly reveals itself to be resilient but in a complicated place. Teacups are mended with “stitches” but still functional. Wax paper is punched with holes and almost destroyed but reveals familial images. Handkerchiefs are coated with porcelain that forms a hard, slightly impenetrable shell. Fired porcelain is amazingly strong, but, because it exhibits qualities of purity and preciousness, it is assumed to be dainty and weak. I use delicacy to highlight oppositions like fragility and destruction, beauty and anxiety, tenderness and harm. I am interested in how these once familiar objects have unequal but inescapable relationships.

OPP: You've referred to the hanging and knotted handkerchiefs, which are dipped in porcelain, as metaphors for sadness. Could you tell me more about how this metaphor functions in such pieces as Tie (2008), Catch (2008) and Choke (2010)?  Are there other recurring metaphors in your work?

JLD: I use handkerchiefs as metaphors for sadness, because I see them being used to catch tears, soak up sadness, and provide some relief from grief. I coat the fabric handkerchiefs in porcelain slip to freeze a particular moment of this despair. Manipulation through tying, knotting, or hanging the coated pieces allows me to express anxiety and the weight of endless sadness. I am drawn to Tolstoy’s quote, “ Happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and I see my handkerchief pieces relating to this.

Another recurring metaphor in my work is the use of chicken feet. In Chinese culture, chicken feet are an edible delicacy and are served often as a family style dish. Growing up in a half Caucasian, half Chinese household, I was often simultaneously repulsed and appreciative of this dish. I was intimidated by the gnarliness of the toes and nails and didn’t fully understand how this was a delectable dish. I use chicken feet as a metaphor for my cultural differences and displacement.

I've noticed the pieces in your Etsy shop are distinctly different from the work in the portfolio section of your OPP site. The whimsical objects with kissing animals are identified as wedding cake toppers and can be customized. Your other sculptures repeatedly bring up the less happy parts of and even the dissolution of marriage. Is this an intentional difference? How does your Etsy shop relate to the rest of your work?

JLD: My work deals with some very tough familial issues and is sometimes drawn from personal experiences. I am extremely open about my choice of remaining distant from my divorced parents (they have also chosen not to contact me for many years) and have lived a seemingly well-adjusted life without them. Occasionally that past seeps back into present day and I need a break from it! So, to take my mind off things, I started unconsciously pinching little bowls out of porcelain clay and slip casting small little animals. These little bowls were just fun to make and gave me a much needed break from the complicated side of my work. Etsy was a way for me to share my love for sweet, simple and whimsical things and allow everyone the opportunity to own one of my pieces.

  Poodle and Chihuahua: Vintage-inspired Cake Topper

I started making wedding cake toppers after I became engaged to my very loving and supportive partner, Ryan Takaba, who is also a ceramic artist.  It is a very happy time for us but initially I was overwhelmed by the formal, traditional, and familial obligations surrounding marriage and the ceremony. I started reading every book and magazine I could find and talking to all my married friends to help me with answers to my questions. I am essentially family-less and entering into my future husband’s very large family was something I didn’t know how to accept right away. His family is very kind, generous, and understanding, and I couldn’t ask for a nicer family. We’ve talked about everything and anything and are finding ways to make our nontraditional wedding day comfortable for everyone.

In my research I kept finding wedding cake toppers where the bride, in a big white dress, sits beautifully atop a multi-tiered cake only to find the groom climbing down the side, trying to slip slyly away. In many ways I found no humor in this and thought it was offensive to the idea of what marriage should be. I wanted our cake topper to portray our ideas of marriage and togetherness and used sweet, little animals to represent nurturing and unconditional love. 
Making cake toppers was never an intentional departure from my other work, but I can see the connections. Everything I make, from little bunny bowls for storage and wedding cake toppers to my conceptual work, all ties into the range of themes associated with the domestic and home.

OPP: You will be traveling to China for 5 weeks for a residency at the Pottery Workshop. Congratulations. What do you plan to work on while there?

JLD: Grants from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio and Artpace are allowing me to travel to Jingdezhen, China to participate in a residency at the Pottery Workshop. Jingdezhen is the birthplace of porcelain clay over 2,000 years ago and it continued to be mined here. This residency will allow me to explore my interest in the cultural significance of porcelain and surface decoration in factory-produced Chinese ceramics. In porcelain factories, men traditionally do the making and women are segregated to the finishing and decorating roles. I want to use Jingdezhen porcelain, working within these cultural traditions, to design and manufacture objects that create identity and beautify, like hairpieces and wigs, mirrors and makeup.

To view more of Jennifer Ling Datchuck’s work, visit jenniferlingdatchuk.com